Today on Shakespeare & Beyond, we’re hoping that the ghost of Shakespeare himself will favor us with an appearance!
The item above is a printed image of “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey, where Shakespeare is commemorated along with a host of other literary luminaries. It seems quiet, peaceful, and unoccupied now, but just wait until it gets dark…
And there he is, haunting Poet’s Corner! Shakespeare is accompanied by fellow spectral literary figures Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.
This image is one of a series of “Protean Views” produced by the enterprising William Spooner (no, not that William Spooner!) in the 1830s. Spooner’s views featured tourist attractions, countryside landscapes, and even a few disasters (such as the Great Fire of London). Under normal lighting, they would appear to be charming but unremarkable prints of chapels, rolling hills, small villages… but when backlit, a new scene would be revealed! An empty church would be populated with people, a fox hunt would appear in the distance, or an avalanche of snow would cover an unsuspecting village.
These images were popularly known as “transparencies” when they were first produced. Their effect was achieved by printing or painting the initial scene on one side of a sheet of paper, then printing or painting the “altered” scene in reverse on the back of the paper. (Some types of transparencies involved cutting one sheet of paper into a scene, then backing it with another sheet of paper.) The transparency would then be placed in front of a light source, such as the flashlight I used in the image above, and the scene or embellishments on the back would shine through.
Transparencies had come into vogue as a commercial keepsake in the late 18th century as more reliable light sources, as well as thinner paper, became readily available to the public. A London printer, Rudolph Ackermann, is credited with being the first person to publish transparencies as individual prints, releasing a series between 1796 and 1802. Ackermann and another London publisher, Edward Orme, both published books on the production of transparencies (in 1799 and 1807 respectively).
Transparencies were also a popular domestic craft among women of the time. They could be produced even by amateurs, and were a relatively easy way to decorate a home. Even better, they could be applied to windows to improve any lacking views. Don’t like the grimy street scenes that mid-19th-century London life afforded? Hide them with some paper decorations, as Thomas Carlyle‘s wife Jane did. Both Ackermann and Orme produced instructions directed at women, as did later works on transparencies, and women’s magazines featured transparencies among their craft suggestions. Women were able to transfer their existing artistic skills, such as embroidery and drawing, to this additional craft form. (Yet, like many feminine crafts, they were not taken seriously as an art form, and the production of transparencies as a commercial product was dominated by men.)
Thus, William Spooner was far from unique in his production of transparencies. The aspect that set his creations apart, though, was a thin layer of tissue paper over the back of the transparency inside its cardboard frame (seen below). In previous transparencies, such as Ackermann’s, the altered secondary image was visible when viewed from the back, creating less of a surprise for the viewer; Spooner’s were mostly obscured. Spooner also labelled his images with the catchier title “Protean views.” (Protean means easily changeable – such as the “Protean charm” in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for any HP fans out there!) Another unique feature of this particular Protean view is that even though Lord Byron appears with Scott and Shakespeare, he was not honored in Westminster Abbey until 1969 – at the time of his death in 1824, his reputation was so scandalous that the abbey refused to allow the burial of his remains!
The production of stand-alone keepsake transparencies seems to have dwindled throughout the mid-19th century as new printing and photographic processes were developed and popularized; however, transparent “calling cards” were a craze at the end of the century, and many companies continued to use transparent effects in their product advertisements throughout the century. And you may be seeing a lot of back-lit art this time of year, just in a different medium — jack o’lanterns work on the same principle!